America is becoming less religious. According to a new Pew Research Center analysis, young adults, known as millennials, have a low level of religious belief: 20 percent of Americans born between 1990 and 1996 profess no belief in God; 8 percent of their parents’ generation claimed no belief. Thirty-five percent of young adults claim no religious affiliation. Fifty percent of young adults attend a religious service only once a year or even less. Thirty percent of them pray “seldom or never.”
Recalling C.S.Lewis’ contention that religion is 10 percent faith and 90 percent culture, a reflection on the religious culture of older American Catholics is informative. Take me as an example. Both my parents were born Catholic and married Catholic. I was given two recognizable saints’ names at my baptism. A crucifix hung over my bed. A statue of the Infant of Prague was prominent in our living room. We did not say grace before meals nor read the Bible but during the Holy Year 1950 we began the family rosary and continued it forever. We never missed Sunday Mass. I attended the parish school where five hours a day a habited woman who visually and staunchly represented the Catholic faith stood at the head of the class. We recited daily and memorized forever a dozen prayers. My sacraments were all timely received. Meanwhile, Christmas pageants were produced, May processions organized, mid-week holy days celebrated. The blessing of throats, ashes, and palms were appreciated; meatless Fridays were duly observed. We faithfully went to confession on the way home from the Saturday movie matinees. For many, altar serving took up mornings; scouting and CYO filled the evenings. A parish priest actually visited our house on the annual census. My deceased relatives were provided with a Christian burial: two-day wake, Solemn Mass, interment in consecrated ground. Today’s hot button moral issues — abortion, sexual preference, immigration, guns — were long settled matters. We felt bad for Protestants who did not have the advantage of the true faith but somewhat admired Jews who maintained their faith in spite of prejudice and persecution.
Clearly, my Catholic faith had the vigorous support of American Catholic culture. Certainly, some mid-century Catholics stopped going to Church, married outside the Church, and rarely gave a thought to the Church. Some criticized and blamed the Church for their own disenchantment. Yet it cannot be denied that mid-century American Catholics were provided with a firm and extensive cultural support for their Christian faith from which many, perhaps most, still draw direction and strength.
Now consider the changed circumstances of today’s millennials, young people raised in the 1980s and 90s. Many millennials were born into families where only one parent was Catholic. This imbalance clearly has consequences. Many were raised in families where either or both parents were divorced. Nothing impedes Catholic life more than divorce. Many were jointly parented, attending CCD in one parish and Sunday Mass in another. They were named after celebrities, not saints. One of their Godparents was a Christian witness. Surely, some millennials went to Catholic schools, served Mass and played CYO sports. But for most, formal religious instruction was received after school once a week. Chances are they never met a religious sister and the parish priest certainly never rang their door bell. Although Christmas and Easter were somewhat observed, Advent, Lent, holy days, Marian devotions and other Catholic pious practices and sacramentals held little sway in their daily lives. Sex and drugs that had been newly accessible in their parents’ era were now readily available in their world. The practical separation of Church and state became the prevailing orthodoxy.
Today’s Catholic millennials who do persevere in the faith and in Catholic life are to be commended for maintaining their personal and family beliefs against overwhelming cultural odds. Today’s young people have been raised in a tremendously secular environment. Their youthful world has been indifferent, or mocking, or even hostile toward religious practice. Religion today has become an entirely personal pursuit, with little cultural support. But God’s disappearance from public life need not always mean God’s disappearance from private life.